TX: 35,000 in NE Tarrant lose telephone service

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35,000 in NE Tarrant lose telephone service

Broken main may affect customers for days


By Michael A. Lindenberger / The Dallas Morning News

WATAUGA Thousands of phone lines in northeast Tarrant County could be out until the middle of next week, after a broken water main flooded a Southwestern Bell regional switching station early Friday morning.

The outage affected about 75,000 phone lines. Some lines were expected to be back in service by late Friday night, but other customers won't hear a dial tone until at least the middle of next week, Southwestern Bell officials said.

Officials said the outage affected between 25,000 and 35,000 telephone customers in parts or all of North Richland Hills, Watauga, Hurst, Bedford, Keller and Colleyville as well as a small portion of Fort Worth and unincorporated areas of Tarrant County. "This usually doesn't happen except in situations like hurricanes," Southwestern Bell spokesman Bill Palen said. "We're looking at a slow ... process. Some of the phone lines are still in two inches of water."

Friday's skies showed no trace of rain clouds, but 177,000 gallons of water streamed out of an eight-inch water main a few yards from the station a little after 6 a.m.

Mr. Palen and the spokeswoman for the city of Watauga said that the pipe unearthed Tuesday in preparation for a road-widening project apparently burst on its own and that no construction crews were working nearby Friday morning.

The water, under heavy pressure, shot straight up ducts leading into the station's basement. The ensuing flood rose to 40 inches and knocked out the station's main power supply. Batteries kept phone lines working until about 10:45 a.m., when 75,000 dial tones went silent, Mr. Palen said.

911 service

The batteries gave police and other emergency agencies time to prepare for the service interruption by rerouting 911 calls, but that was little help for the households or businesses who could not get a working line. Police officers and firefighters from nearby cities made themselves conspicuous in case of a medical or other emergency.

"We have sent all of our extra patrols out into the city," said Sgt. Ken Bounds of the North Richland Hills Police Department, a move that was mirrored by agencies in Watauga, Bedford, Colleyville, Hurst and other nearby cities.

Dr. Bill Munn, director of Tarrant County's 911 program, said Friday's service interruption was the most widespread problem the network had experienced in the 15 years he had been involved with it.

As of Friday afternoon, no emergencies as a result of the stymied communication had been reported.

But across the area, fax lines, credit card approval machines and Internet connections as well as regular telephone access were knocked offline throughout the area. Cell phone networks were taxed heavily by the sudden demand, in some cases beyond capacity, officials said.

As a result, some local businesses saw their cash registers grow as quiet as their receivers.

At Eckerd Drugs, at 4814 Colleyville Blvd. in Colleyville, business was unhealthily slow.

"We are not able to process the prescriptions on the insurance," pharmacist Mikhail Henry said. "Some of them were like, 'We'll come back later.' Others said they were taking their prescriptions back. We are not having a fun time."

In the next plaza over, the decommissioned phones all but grounded Carlson Wagonlit Travel's morning business, although not everyone there stopped trying to sell vacations over the phone.

Slow progress

With 150 BellSouth employees and dozens of public safety officials on site Friday evening, work continued apace, but progress was expected to be slow. "This is very, very rare, thank goodness," said Mike McLeland, vice president of network for Southwestern Bell, which maintains 5 million phone lines in the Dallas/Fort Worth area.

Mr. Palen said destroyed equipment and switches were likely to be replaced by Friday night, restoring some service immediately. As many as tens of thousands of others will have to wait for wet copper wires to slowly dry in the humid basement of the switching center.

"As for complete ... [restoration] of service, we are looking at days, even late next week," Mr. Palen said.

Staff reporters Tawnell D. Hobbs, Jaime Jordan and Amy Roquemore contributed to this report.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), June 02, 2001

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